Four soccer players at Western Michigan University are testing the bounds of religious freedom.
They’re arguing that their school’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for student-athletes violates their Christian beliefs.
In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in Grand Rapids, Emily Dahl, Hannah Redoute, Bailey Korhorn and Morgan Otteson said that on Aug. 12, Western Michigan required them to get a shot by month’s end or be removed from the team. All four players separately applied for religious exemptions, according to the lawsuit, but learned last Thursday that they had been denied.
The Western Michigan quartet last Friday contacted the Great Lakes Justice Center, a team of Lansing-based constitutional law attorneys who have filed various lawsuits during the pandemic challenging the legality of public health restrictions. The Great Lakes Justice Center brought the lawsuit on the eve of Western Michigan’s vaccination deadline and filed a motion seeking to prevent the players from being dismissed from the team until the case can be heard.
“Normally, we would have sent a letter to the university, sat down with their counsel and tried to resolve this, but in this case, there was no time left to do that,” Lansing-based attorney David Kallman told Yahoo Sports. “It was either this or get kicked off the team.”
Whereas Western Michigan requires athletes to be vaccinated, its campus-wide policy is not as strict. The university “strongly encourages COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff” and requires those who aren’t vaccinated to be tested regularly.
An associate athletic director at Western Michigan did not immediately return a message from Yahoo Sports seeking an explanation on Monday, but the school provided a statement to the Associated Press. The statement described an outbreak due to unvaccinated athletes as a “significant risk” and contended that the vaccine requirement was “the only effective manner” of minimizing that threat.
Western Michigan athletes who insist on remaining unvaccinated will not lose their scholarships. They can stay enrolled at the university and continue to pursue their education.
Dahl, Redoute, Korhorn and Otteson have agreed to wear masks and to be regularly tested for the virus, Kallman said. When asked how getting vaccinated clashed with his clients’ Christian beliefs, Kallman cited the passage of the bible that states that human bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” and should be treated as such.
“To allow the government to inject something into your body that you don’t necessarily agree with is the antithesis of that,” Kallman said.
“Really the key point here is whatever their religious belief, the case law is clear from the Supreme Court on down. A personal religious belief is just that. It’s personal to the person. The government has no right to challenge it. If a person says they have this religious belief, the government has to accept that.”
In addition to arguing that Western Michigan is unconstitutionally restricting the religious liberties of his clients, Kallman also contends that the vaccine mandate violates their fundamental right to personal autonomy. Kallman cited a 2014 Supreme Court case in which the court held that the Fourteenth Amendment extended to “certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.”
In that case, Kallman said, the plaintiffs found their personal identity in their sexual orientation. In this one, Kallman said, it’s their religious faith.
If Dahl, Redoute, Korhorn and Otteson have played their last match for Western Michigan, it would be a massive blow to the school’s women’s soccer team. Korhorn, a fifth-year senior forward, is tied for the team lead in goals this season. Otteson, an all-conference forward, leads the team in assists. Dahl, a senior defender, is a three-year starter. Redoute has appeared off the bench in all four of Western Michigan’s matches this season and has tallied an assist.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Indiana University's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees and students. When asked why he’s optimistic the courts will see his clients’ argument differently, Kallman pointed out that Western Michigan’s policy applies to only athletes — not the whole campus.
“That is discriminatory,” Kallman said. “They’re not treating all students equally. What difference is there between participating in a sport and being in the choir or labs or classes or dorms and on and on? If vaccines are a necessity, they seem to be undercutting their own argument by not requiring it for all the other students.”